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Good fences make good neighbors

Hasita Bhammar's picture
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© Center for Conservation and Research, Sri Lanka
© Center for Conservation and Research, Sri Lanka

The members of the community in the Bulugolla village in Sri Lanka breathed a sigh of relief. It was the month of October and the rice harvest had gone well. The rains had been plentiful and their meddlesome neighbors (seen in picture above) were abiding by their boundaries. This has not always been the case.

As the head of the village explained, “We depend upon a rice harvest to earn our livelihood. While we culturally and traditionally have lived in harmony with elephants, we cannot survive without our paddy farms and so we have to keep the elephants out”.

Human wildlife conflict is currently one of the greatest conservation challenges. As human populations grow, wildlife habitat shrink and humans and wildlife come in contact with each other as they compete for resources. In addition, wildlife such as elephants cannot be limited to the boundaries of protected areas as many protected areas can only support a certain number of elephants. In Sri Lanka, most elephant live outside protected areas amidst paddy fields, community villages, highway railways and other development infrastructure that is intended to support the growing human population. Conflict is inevitable but failure to reduce it will result in extinction of wildlife species.   

The world’s wildlife needs young naturalists

Hasita Bhammar's picture
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The youth from the Turia community celebrating their first workshop on tiger conservation in the Pench Tiger Reserve
The youth from the Turia community celebrating their first workshop on tiger conservation in the Pench Tiger Reserve

In 2010, 15 days after graduating from college, with nothing but a backpack and an old water bottle, I stood in front of a large gate with a rusted sign welcoming me to the “Pench Tiger Reserve.” The same reserve that inspired Rudyard Kipling’s, Jungle Book. None of the mock interviews  or standardized testscould have prepared me for the job at hand. I was there to set up a small nonprofit whose mission was to involve youth from the local community near the tiger reserve and instill in them a love and passion for the environment. Specifically, instill in these young minds a commitment to safeguard the 41 tigers that roamed wild in the reserve.

As a 21 year old, my employers were entrusting upon me this responsibility based on a simple philosophy – if you want to inspire young people – give the opportunity to someone young! In the two and a half years that I spent in the reserve, with the help of the forest department, three local schools and community members, we were able to invite leading conservationists, teachers, innovators and environmental enthusiasts to conduct hands-on workshops with children aged 10-16 from within the community. Every workshop answered questions on the importance of environmental protection and the rationale behind how simple, local efforts can have positive impacts globally. These curious minds absorbed knowledge like sponges and within a few years, we had the next set of forest protectors and tiger champions. They are influencers in the community and are currently involved in small enterprises that help the local economy and preserve the tiger habitat in and around the Pench Tiger Reserve.

Since leaving the Reserve, I have been active in many youth groups around the world. One such organization is the 2041 Foundation whose mission is to provide leadership training to young people especially from developing countries to help preserve the environment. As a part of this training, on an expedition to Antarctica, I was able to see firsthand the effects of climate change on our fragile ecosystems. This experience had a profound influence on my commitment to conservation.